Eat More Trash: Dumpster Diving in Japan
Japan residents, I beseech you: Eat more trash.
You read me right. Dumpster diving. A fresh (rim shot, please) take on the three R’s we all remember from elementary school, reduce, reuse, and recycle. Back in Americaland, I found all sorts of great things in the trash. Party décor, German beer, frozen apple pie, meatball sandwiches, raspberries, vintage books, expensive orchids, retro lamps, great records, foccacia bread, weird shoes…the list goes on and on. At one point in college, I was using dumpstered foods in every meal, and am still alive, I think. I am most familiar with dumpster diving for food and furniture, but the possibilities are endless.
So you wanna eat trash. It’s easiest to find food an hour or two after closing time at grocery stores, when the workers have finished a final survey of the store, rounding up and disposing of expired or damaged items. Smaller grocery stores often dispose of perishables that are perfectly fine because they have to make room on the shelves for a new shipment of newer, fresher food. At some stores, you can find all edibles conveniently disposed of in a separate plastic bag without any contaminants. Bakeries are another good place to check out, but it’s especially important to check their bins right after they close since bread is so porous.
Diving food from restaurants is a little tricky, and definitely doesn’t sound as appetizing. There is hearsay that you can find perfectly good food in the dumpster from buffet-style restaurants, and that some restaurants will even give away the extra food at the end of the night if you ask nicely enough or come at the right time.
A friend of mine actually refurbishes furniture found in Boston’s illustrious dumpsters. He makes good money off of the fruits of his curbing, or checking out the trash left on sidewalk curbs. Some of his refinished pieces look convincingly new, worth hundreds of dollars.
But maybe you’re just a humble new gaikokujin, searching high and low for a dinner table that won’t set you back three hundred dollars, or an easy chair for an easy price. “Where can I find furniture for my sorely under-furnished digs?” Why, in a home furnishing store’s trash bin, of course! These places routinely dump outdated samples, slightly damaged items, and returns that can’t be turned over as merchandise again. Last summer I found two like-new, heavy-duty, leather and wood desk chairs for my pad and let me tell you, they are stylin’.
There are certain places where you are sure to find some good trash if you keep an open mind. In college, I always visited the dorm trash bins during the last week of the school semester. College students eager to pack up and get the hell away from school would throw away practically their entire apartment’s contents. I never knew what to expect, but I often came away with my little car literally full. I’ve found everything from cleaning supplies to dishes to imperishable food, all in perfect condition.
Another good place to check is behind big stores. Electronics stores are particularly wary of selling merchandise with damaged packaging, so they often throw it away rather than price it down. Who knows what you may find; video games, a computer monitor? Just keep your eyes peeled. Sometimes you can find perfectly intact store samples at retail stores.
Schools and other institutions sometimes dispose of obsolete machines and such that you can use in art or decor. Once I found a really cool, albeit large, transparency projector that became a nice device to have handy for projects.
My three most valuable pieces of advice for the budding dumpster diver are as follows.
1. Do not lose your cool.
If you hear people, don’t worry. They’re probably just going to slow down, stare, shrug, possibly laugh, and move along. If you notice employees or the police, act natural. If approached, try not to look surprised, guilty, or confused. Offer a good explanation. I recommend the following excuses: “I need cardboard boxes because I’m moving,” or “I threw away something important at this store by accident earlier today.” Note: If they ask what exactly you threw away, “my retainer” is probably a better lie than “my baby.”
2. Be discreet, grasshopper.
I have two reasons for this piece of advice. The first is to avoid people who might discourage you from diving. Go at night after stores are closed and people are at home and asleep, which is usually when you’ll find the best trash, anyway. I don’t think I need to tell you that, as a foreigner, you’re a bit more conspicuous than the average trash-rummaging Japanese person. Get creative with costumes: don an obaachan bonnet; wear a surgical mask. My second reason for this advice is that you might actually run into your own kind. Running into fellow divers, for me, has always gone one of two ways. A conversation could eventually start as you figure out the other is not a threat, or one or both of you leave as you think the other is going to disturb or endanger your dive. It’s better to let whoever is there first do their business, and if possible, get in there they are long gone.
3. Relax. This is perhaps most important for someone new to diving. You can’t find good stuff when you’re worried and hurried.
Q: Is it dangerous?
A: Not really, if you’ve got common sense. Always bring a flashlight. I can’t tell you how many times I didn’t think I’d find anything valuable or edible at the bottom of a bin, and lo and behold, two weeks worth of bread (or what have you) were sealed up in a separate garbage bag, hiding in the dark just under a few empty produce boxes. You need light to avoid having to climb into the dumpster, and gloves for when it’s unavoidable. I recommend dishwashing or latex gloves for light diving, but if you’re ready to really dig deep, top the dishwashing gloves with gardening gloves. For the faint of heart, or a particularly daunting dumpster, a surgical mask and a stick to move the trash around would lead to your optimal dumpster diving destiny. It goes without saying that you should wear old clothes and shoes.
In addition to gear, I must mention that for all of their glorious mystery, you should never try to open or enter a trash compactor. Businesses own these to destroy valuable and/or bulky trash. I often found them behind large corporate chains and electronics stores. They are scary and dangerous.
Q: That doesn’t sound very legal.
A: It all depends, my friend. Usually, any law related to dumpster diving is going to be pretty vague. Thus, if an officer ever approached you it would be his decision whether or not to interpret your action as violating said law. I’ve been approached by managers a few times with mixed results. Half of the people I’ve come across were very nice and left me alone after satisfying their curiosity and making sure I wasn’t going to endanger the staff. The other half were rude and threatened me with legal action. If you are told to leave by an employee or officer, obviously it’s in your best interest to be very nice and obedient. The bottom line is to be quiet, look harmless (or crazy and unapproachable, your choice), and avoid everyone.
Q: That seems really unhealthy and unappetizing. How do I know if something I’ve found in the dumpster is safe to eat?
A: Same way you figure out if that milk in your fridge is still good or that cheese with the mold on one side can still be salvaged. You sniff, examine visually, and if you’re still unsure, either toss it because you’re a delicate flower, or go for it. Find the sell-by date. Perishable foods are usually safe to eat up to about a week after the sell-by date if they are refrigerated items and are still somewhat cold when you find them. My rule is one or two days if I find refrigerated foods that are no longer cold. The use-by date is obviously a different story.
Q: Okay, I’m in, but I want more food tips. This sounds a little scary.
A: Let me note here that I have never gotten remotely sick from dumpstered food. That said, generally you should dive for food soon after the store is closed and avoid meat, dairy, seafood, bulging cans, and soft foods that are moldy or even overripe. Hard foods (such as carrots) that are a little moldy will be alright as long as you cut off the moldy section. I have binned pre-cooked meat, frozen foods, raw eggs, and un-pasteurized juice with no problem, but these are all iffy things to eat out of the trash. All of the above were not past their sell- or use-by date, and some were still cold when I found them. Use good judgment and you’ll be fine. And I’m sorry if I’m insulting your intelligence here, but please, wash those fruits and vegetables thoroughly.
Q: Is it really worth the effort? It’s not like I’m poor.
A: A few questions. Wouldn’t you rather save the money that you would have been spending on the same things you can find in the dump for free? Wouldn’t you like to prevent useful goods from making their way into landfills or incinerators? Wouldn’t you like the satisfaction of going home with free stuff? If you can get past the stigma and initial embarrassment of rummaging through garbage, I think you’ll agree that…wait for it… “One man’s trash is indeed another man’s treasure.”